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The Super-Shelterbelt City
Tarim Desert Highway

Yesterday's post about the global importation of aerosol reminded me of the Tarim Desert Highway, which crosses the great expanse of the Taklimakan (or Taklamakan) Desert in western China, the region I referred to as a Hell Mouth. I've blogged about it several times over the years, first briefly appearing as a pruning, which I later expanded into a full post, before using it as a starting point for some speculative terraforming scenarios.

The thing that so absolutely fascinates me about the highway, second only to its shelterbelt, is its maintenance crew—a total of 110 couples, according to The Telegraph's math—who are “housed in huts every four kilometers along the road. Life in the desert was judged too lonely for single men, so only couples could apply for the job.” Their duties include turning on the irrigation pumps in the morning to water the plants and…that's about it. The rest of the day is spent “pretty much doing nothing.”

Perhaps it's me augmenting their lives spent in spartan cubicles in the middle of utter wilderness with the romantic image of life as a lighthouse keeper that explains the interest: solitary figures living in the open dune sea, guiding caravansaries through fog banks of atomized earth; park rangers in their lookout towers, peering out for wildsands that might snuff out their midget forests; caretaker pilots of deep space mining ships, ensuring critical resources are safely navigated through interstellar deserts, with Mother or Father as their only companion. These desert ashrams may be fully connected to the rest of civilization via television and mobile devices, but there's always that undertone of the monastic.

Tarim Desert Highway

Perhaps China, faced with a future of persistent drought, accelerating desertification, and an afforestation program in total failure (the combination of which may mean more intense and more frequent sandstorms that smother the most economically dynamic cities in the world, degrading their already poor urban air quality into a public health hazard), will expand the Tarim shelterbelt to cover the entire Taklimakan Desert (and the Gobi Desert, too), grafting a checkerboard of midget forests that not only will protect a strategic oil route but also suppress the creation of sandstorms or at the very least weaken them and shorten their reach.

This Super-Shelterbelt would be a megalopolis of sorts, the largest city in the world in terms of area, gridded out into four-square-kilometer parcels. In a corner of each plot will be a blue house with a red roof, of course, where the comparably small populace will live in pairs. One wonders what social structures will emerge out of this gigantic urban air conditioner land grabbed from the hinterlands. What manner of urbanism will something so utterly centerless, diffused, but altogether bound by fealty to distant megacity overlords, generate?


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